The complexity of the war on free speech

9 November 2012

Free speech in Britain is being pulled in two completely opposite directions. On the one hand, thanks to the increasingly tortuous mission-creep that is the Leveson Inquiry, there are a range of demands for greater regulation of the print press.  Today’s rather surprising letter to the Guardian by various Conservative MPs is an example of some thinking on this.

What is odd is that this should happen at exactly the same moment when the internet is pulling us in an opposite direction. It is all very well to come up with ever more labyrinthine ways in which to keep the print-media in line, but this increasingly looks like advocating temperance to a person who enjoys a glass of wine with their meals, whilst an alcoholic rampages through the same room. Just consider the last 24 hours.


If you search the internet you can find the names of Conservatives and Labour figures alleged to have committed paedophilic crimes. Yesterday a television presenter used the fact that you can find these names on the internet as a reason to put some names to the Prime Minister on a live television programme. Last night this fact itself became the news. Today one of the people alleged to have been named has issued a very vigorous denial of the claims.

This seems to me an important point in the current debate on press freedom. For all of its failings, the print media does aim to school people in the research and verifying of stories. People get things wrong, certainly, but few newspapers will run stories with absolutely no basis in fact. What authority the press possesses comes from this fact. But the internet is different and, as was shown yesterday, we still have no idea of how to deal with it.

On the one hand the internet and social media networks have the free-speech-enhancing ability to get around such outrages as super-injunctions and (partly) our wildly unbalanced libel laws. But on the other hand it also has the ability to set off nationwide alarm on the false basis that an allegation, if repeated often enough, must have some element of truth. Yet truth is not the plural of allegation. The print media used to know this and tried to keep it in mind much of the time. There were always ‘open rumours’ in the media of course, ‘known’ by people and repeated, yet also known not to have the legs to stand up as a story. The web has little or no such conception and can just run the open rumour.

It seems to me that alongside losing our ability to print and say what we think we are losing our ability to tell the difference between truth and rumour. This is not a healthy pile-up of troubles.

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  • Davy Crockett

    True, although of course it is not the institution of print media that is in and of itself dedicated to well researched, accurate fact-telling. Newspapers and print journalists tend to adhere to the law, rather than to innate principles or even the preservation of their own reputation. They stick to the truth because it is legally unrealistic for them not to. Where there is no legal penalty for telling lies, the same reverence for accuracy is infrequently on display. The Sun’s Hillsborough coverage shared many characteristics of modern day Twitter hysteria such as that seen this week. As you rightly observe our libel laws are hopeless, yet conversely it is hapless regard for them on the part of editors that often governs how much or little can be reported prior to its being firmly established that no legal consequences will follow.

  • James Martin

    Bravo, Douglas, this echos your claim that “The oxygen of free societies is freedom of speech. Everything short of incitement has to be tolerated, even when it is wrong”

    In spite of these remarks, however, Murray has previously threatened legal action against Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal Conspiracy, forcing him to remove a reference to him on Hundal’s website. On another occasion, he had apparently pressurised the Huffington Post into removing references to him as well. In the words of The Commentator,the website of senior HJS staff-member Robin Shepherd: ‘Murray warned the Huffpost that its time in Britain would be short if it persisted in libeling people in this manner. At which point, the Huffington Post agreed to remove references to Murray from the story.’ He also tried to have this post about him removed

    Oh well so much for free speech. I guess these ‘wildly unbalanced libel laws’ are fine when Douglas wants to use them.

  • Simon Morgan

    Another case in hand for you is the ludicrous blow out by the new media of what and how Julia Gilliard attacked the opposition leader here in Australia recently.

    This attack went ‘viral’. It was twittered all over the place, and found headline coverage in magazines like Jezebel.

    This shrill attack by the PM was actually a last resort by her and the Labor party here to divert everyone’s attention from the appalling mess the government was making of just about everything – an ill-thought out carbon tax, a mining tax that has raised zero dollars, the total loss of border controls and the integrity of her minority government being the main the main issues.

    Some hype even went so far as to compare Gillard with Thatcher!!!! I cannot possibly tell you how much of an insult this is to Thatcher.

    It is a dangerous media because it not accountable for anything it puts out there.

    BTW – a chain letter e-mail I received recently had it that Julia Gillard had gotten tough on immigrants and told them that they must assimilate to the Australian way of life or get out. Can anyone really imagine a left wing PM saying anything like that?

  • Sarah

    What war on free speech?

    The so-called war on free speech is a war on the pulpits.

  • Eddie

    We certainly need more freedom of speech, not less, and we need to get our priorities right.

    If someone ‘tweets’ or puts on Facebook a comment that the pc gestapo see as ‘racist’, a hundred police descend on that individual and he goes to prison.

    Worse, if someone dares to criticise someone’s beliefs – for example Islam – then the police and authorities (acting on behalf of extremist Muslims in the name of ‘equality and diversity’) will arrest you, especially if you pretend to burn an old book that recommends paedophilia and slavery (The Koran)!!!

    <eanwhile, if someone tweets or puts online allegations that certain people are paedophiles (without evidence), then the police do nothing.

    There are loads of liars out there – loads of people who will for reasons of revenge, for example, or bullying, or just because they are mental, accuse innocent men (and it is usually men) of being paedophiles. There have been cases of people falsely accusing men of being paedophiles to get back at them for something; and in the US, lawyers will often encourage ex-wives to raise suspicion over thei ex-husband's behaviour, in child custody cases (Their father was naked with the children in the bathroom and touched the childrehn when they were naked etc).

    We need new laws to stop this crap; or to use the laws we have to arrest and charge all those who make false allegations.

    MacAlpine is rich – but for a part-time teacher suspended (without pay), and banned from teaching until the matter is solved, (so unemployed, but unable to claim jobseekers allowance), the situation is AWFUL – and everyone assumes 'there's no smoke without fire' and any man accused is therefore guilty. There are some terrible cases of young male teachers accused by nasty evil little slags in their classes – and of course nothing happens when the girl's lies and shown to be based on fantasy or revenge against a teacher who has given her a low mark. THIS MUST STOP.

    And if this mostly affected women, you can be damn sure the feminists would be demanding action too! (interestingly, women commit most violent child abuse, most is in the home, and women kill at least as many children and babies as men – so women are NOT more moral or safe for children; in fact, quite the reverse: bad mothers – and those who allow dangerous men to access another man's kids – are a real problem).

    We need new laws specifically for accusations of sex crimes and anonymity for men accused. But there is really no way to control the internet, I'm afraid.

    • Eddie

      What the F? Cor Blimey what a meshhhhh!

      Ain’t nuffink to do wiv me. guv! I just writted my message an that, and then it gets all scwambled in alphalabetical order, like.

      Has this website swallowed a dictionary perhaps? Or been hacked by Stephen Fry’s pants? Or a Koran-cuddler?

      • Marcus

        Koran-cuddler? Why do you have to bring Muslims into every post, Eddie? This is a post about press freedom. You honestly need psychiatric help – you are obsessed with Islam in a very weird, and dare I say bigoted and racist way. You also mentioned recently that the UK panders to Muslims and brown people. Could you give evidence to support this. Is it enshrined in the law, for example? Maybe I’ve missed something. I’d be interested to know how Muslims affect your daily life, in any tangible way (other than the bile you read, and write about them yourself, on blogs such as this).

        • Austin Barry

          Perhaps as Eddie is not a vulnerable little girl living in care, a tube traveller on 7/7, or some other unfortunate infidel, his daily life is not affected by muslims and he should, of course, be quiet.

          • Eddie

            Your post is as pointless and stupid as you are, Austin Allegro Barry. Brrrrum brrum fart fart fart…

            • Austin Barry

              Irony, Eddie, irony.

              • Eddie

                Indeed. Reading your post again, I hear your tone of voice anew!

                However, as a vulnerable little girl living in care I am deeply offended. Speak later. Off to take drugs and have underage sex for a free kebab now.

        • Eddie

          I do not bring Islam into every post; I mention it because it is relevant. Muslims are treated as a special case, so all criticism of them or jokes about them are effectively banned in a way jokes about other groups are not.
          Also, the abuse Muslims fling at others is tolerated – the scrambled post above mentioned the Muslims who spread hateful ideas through hateful speech and that is tolerated. That is hypocrisy.
          Everyone should be treated the same by the same standards with no special treatment for anyone. Do you disagree?

      • anyfool

        Why dont you edit it.

        • Eddie

          Because it was not me but some sort of computer glitch that caused that weird display of words in alphabetical order with equal signs etc. of course!

          Why don’t you make an intelligent point?

          • anyfool

            Why don’t you make an intelligent point?
            Are you being ironic just to prove to Austin you now understand him.

            • Eddie

              Errr…right….Now, anyfool, why don’t you edit your post to make sense. Deleting all the words of one syllable or more would do it.

  • anyfool

    It seems to me that alongside losing our ability to print and say what we think we are losing our ability to tell the difference between truth and rumour.

    I do not believe this for one moment, over the last three decades we have been subjected to what you in the media call spin, misspeaking and re-interpreting these are all euphemisms for lies, at the moment we are being subjected to this in a very professional way by the mainly London based elites in the bigger news outlets of which you and your fellow journalists belong.

    Then we have in Labour a party so steeped in deceit and deception that it is hard to believe a word they say, there only reason for its existence now that it has been taken over by the same elites to whom most journalists belong is to propagate its delusions that if you tell enough lies and dispense benefits to enough people these people now running the party who in normal circumstances would barely be able to flip burgers can stay in power continuing to accrue ever more money like their debased heroes the Kinnocks and Blairs.

    The success these people are having can been seen in the US by the election of a voracious liar in Obama and even more in the UK by the polling figures of a Party that destroyed the economy with its venal ways that resulted in the jailing of several of its adherents can still be taken as a serious contender for governance of the country.

    We have not lost the ability to to tell the difference between truth and lies, we have lost the inclination to care.

  • Austin Barry

    It’s difficult to remember, although only a short while ago, when we just had the established press to rely on: beyond it no other perspective on events existed. That’s finished: we now have every other view, every other narrative, every other critique reflected somewhere out there. Sure much of it will be rubbish, malign and just plain wrong, but it must be healthy for it simply to exist.

    Our ruling elites must just hate it. They can no longer control and finesse information. Excellent.

  • Frank Sutton

    Much of the “blogosphere” has little concept of libel, and still less of contempt of court, two restraints on print and broadcast media. Some cyber-crusaders like to imagine they are fearlessly going where the press dares not go, when in fact they get away with it because they’re too small to sue.
    I wonder if the learned Lord L. will cast a shadow over the freedom of the cyberworld?

  • Troika21

    The editorial standards of social media rarely elevate far above rumour.
    That newspapers seem to be so envious of gossip is worrying.

  • Andy

    “the print media does aim to school people in the research and verifying of stories.”

    “few newspapers will run stories with absolutely no basis in fact”

    Both of those statements are false and you know it. There are hundreds of examples of newspaper stories with little to no research, verification or basis in fact.

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